Looking through the old KC diaries I have here, I see that on Tuesday 7th January 1986 I had a meeting with Lieutenant General Sir Steuart Pringle, then Chairman and Chief Executive of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust. It was to be in his room in the Old Paymaster’s Office in the dockyard once inhabited by Charles Dickens’ father, John Dickens, who was Pay Clerk to the Admiralty at Chatham between 1817 and 1822. I was not looking forward to it.
Malcolm Cockell and I first met Sir Steuart in 1984 soon after he had been appointed by the Government to turn the recently closed naval dockyard into a living museum. We invited him for one of the trips on KC from Strood Pier with 12 passengers during the summer of 1984 which he attended along with his newly appointed assistant Richard Holdsworth. I recall him saying to me with a smile as he disembarked up the gangway after we had berthed safely at Strood Pier “I think that you have done this before”. In fact I hadn’t. That was one of the first times I had ever taken KC out as her captain.
After that we met again and it was agreed that he would let us have the use of Thunderbolt Pier in the dockyard for KC’s exclusive use, a workshop facility close to the pier, a place for us to store our coal and an office all initially rent free on the basis that we would open a tea room on the ground floor of the office for the 1985 season, the first summer that the Historic Dockyard was to be open to the public. It was a generous gesture.
That first summer was not easy and there were very few, and sometime hardly any, visitors to the freshly named Chatham Historic Dockyard itself. We put on sailings in our own right most particularly afternoon cruises which started to take off with the group and coach party markets. We added to that evening jazz jamborees and occasional day trips aimed at different market segments.
Sir Steuart also took on various enthusiast led projects into the dockyard that summer including an outfit which tried to run old underground carriages around the site towed by diesel engines. I remember the man in charge of it back then always turning up to meetings with loads of files stuffed under his arms. Of course paperwork is important but I have always thought that it should be in service of the main task in hand not leading it. However it did make me wonder briefly if I was doing something wrong turning up and making occasional notes on just a small pad that slipped into my pocket and not being seen to have copious files ever in attendance.
There were other organisations as well to which the General had allotted space to operate within the Historic Dockyard during that first summer. After the season had finished and the autumn drew on I noticed that all of them had been summoned in for meetings with the General from which they all emerged sacked. Their projects didn’t make a good fit with the vision that the then Historic Dockyard trustees had now formed for their ongoing business model. So I was not looking forward to my meeting with Sir Steuart on 7th January 1986.
The day dawned. I took a deep breath. And so knocked on his door at the appointed hour. “Come on in John”. He said. “Would you like a coffee?” He rang the bell and a nice little old lady called Joy appeared with a tray complete with biscuits. Then we were off. No mention of being sacked but glowing praise about how well we had done and how he hoped to work with us in the longer term. One change though. He wanted to take back the catering. Well that was no hurdle for me. In fact that brought with it a little sense of relief.
From then on Sir Steuart and I got on really well. And discovering that I then lived in Tooting and he lived not a million miles away in Dulwich he sometimes offered me a lift if we were travelling around the same time and dropped me off at West Dulwich railway station.
There was then just a small staff at the Historic Dockyard. Everyone knew everybody else and I always felt that there was a generally friendly attitude to each other. In the garden of the residence formerly occupied by the Admiral of the port there were some quince trees. These were by then somewhat neglected. The quince ripened in September and mostly fell to the ground where they quietly rotted away. I sometimes picked a few and took them home to stew up with loads of sugar to make a nice pudding for my supper. Pringle’s secretary Debs noticed them too and one day asked Roy, one of the dockyard’s handymen, if he wouldn’t mind picking some for Sir Steuart to take home.
We were sitting and having a snack lunch one day in the dockyard’s new eatery when in bowled Roy carrying two large buckets stuffed full with quince. “I have picked these for you sir.” he said to the General. “Well Roy” Sir Steuart replied. “I am surprised that you have time to think about picking quince with all the other jobs you have to do.” Roy smiled and laughed. The General smiled and laughed. And I smiled and laughed too. I really liked Sir Steuart’s directness and the fact that he was inclined to say exactly what he thought.
So my meeting on 7th January 1986 went very much better than I had imagined it might. And Sir Steuart turned out to be a good friend and supporter of KC over the years. I was sorry to hear of his death in 2013.
This article was first published on 7th January 2021.